by Sophie Trist
Like most American teenagers, I didn't spend much time thinking about the death penalty. The few times capital punishment came up in my moderately conservative Christian household, it was generally agreed that "an eye for an eye" was biblical, and some people were just so evil that they didn't deserve to live. That all changed for me at 1:12 A.M. one morning when I was sixteen.
I was curled in the fetal position in my bed, my body shaking with sobs, trying to stay quiet to avoid waking my parents and sister. I had just finished John Grisham's 2010 novel The Confession, which tells the story of Dante Drumm, an innocent young Black man wrongfully executed for the rape and murder of a white teenager. The book punched me in the face with the dehumanizing reality of death row. Reading about a boy locked in his cell for twenty-three hours a day, denied any physical contact with his loved ones, and trapped in a system designed to make politicians look good rather than seek the truth rattled my faith in the American justice system, which at the time I believed could do no wrong.
By the end of the novel, Dante's innocence scarcely mattered. No human being deserved to be treated so cruelly. There had to be a way to punish somebody for a crime without taking away their human dignity, without making us all participants in state violence. That night, as I cried over fictional characters, I realized that there is no moral difference between a helpless person being killed in the street and the state killing a powerless prisoner in a futile act of vengeance. I did not have any statistics or data back then, just a soul-deep feeling that it is always wrong to give one human being the power of life and death over another.
In college, I learned about capital punishment's disproportionate impact on people of color, poor people, and people with disabilities. I read the stories of botched executions and those from exonerated death row inmates and victims' families who said that taking another life could not bring their loved one back and did nothing to protect society. I studied the work of Sister Helen Prejean and Brian Stevenson, who echo my God's call for mercy and unearned grace. I heard Mr. Jerry Givens, a former executioner from Virginia, speak about the psychological toll that killing people for the state took on him. I testified in support of a bill that would have ended capital punishment in Louisiana, and over several conversations, I convinced my parents to reject the death penalty as well.
Now, with federal executions proceeding at a horrifying rate and five more killings scheduled over the next few weeks, it is more important than ever to share the stories of those who have been legally killed by the state as well as those who were spared at the last moment. Stories humanize statistics; they make them real for us. We get invested in people, not in numbers. In fiction, I encountered the cruelty and injustice of capital punishment and had a change of heart; through the true stories of victims and perpetrators broken by state-sanctioned killing, I became a vocal advocate. My wish for anyone reading this piece is that you find or write a story that challenges society's beliefs about who deserves to live, even to be considered human, because if all of us don't have that right, none of us truly do. If we share enough stories about people on the margins, enough stories that embrace a radically consistent ethic of life, we can change the narrative and work toward a world where everyone's humanity is valued, regardless of what they've done.